The Currency and Danger in the Storytelling of Leaders Overcoming Great Odds

Several years ago I attended a retreat with a group of nonprofit leaders where everyone had to share their story in less than two minutes. When my turn was up, I gave the two-minutes I have always given.

I grew up in deep poverty and all the difficulties that go with that. Committed myself to my community, alleviate social ills and that my story is the fuel that guides this work. As I have given this speech a number of times, I usually get a number of people who may be either inspired or appreciate this perspective.

In this session, one of my colleagues said,"Your personal history is great but should not be the measure or reason why you do this work". I was instantly offended. I stated that personal story is an important aspect of what fuels many people to do this work.The breast cancer survivor organizing a walk or someone who grew up without a father becoming a mentor to a young boy. Most of the room agreed with me, stated some of their own personal stories, to which my colleague stated, "That is fine for someone to get involved, but should not be the main currency by which is a leader is judged". I disagreed vehemently but over the last couple of years have been thinking about it.

Stories of individuals overcoming great obstacles to obtain leadership has become common place in our society. For people seeking elected positions, it has almost become a requirement. Watching any election today and the back-and-forth between the candidates is often a showcase in how many obstacles were overcome, with poverty usually the storyline that is most used.

In 2012, even Presidential nominee Mitt Romney couldn't really talk about his own experiences in poverty but the American people frequently pointed to his father's bootstrap story. I still hear President Clinton's "Little Town Called Hope" in my head from time to time.

Like them, I have benefitted from this currency. As a nonprofit leader, having this power can help in a number of ways ranging from extra efforts from donors to building trust from those who want to know you empathize with the cause. Additionally, the currency is hard to obtain. Moving out of poverty is hard and, as some studies show, nearly impossible. Surviving from disease is hard and while there are many who are dedicated to finding a cure, many are not able to survive to see that cure, so those who have survived become beacons to their communities.

There are several dangers to this currency. The first is that the currency can be overused or even exploited by themselves or by others. A good example is the Somaly Mam case. Somaly Mam is the founder and until yesterday, was the leader of the Somaly Mam Foundation. Mam claimed that she was abused by her a family member until she was 14, sold to a brothel and forced into prostitution and then forced to marry a stranger.

Mam has moved from this difficult story to creating an organization that has been reported to help thousands of girls escape a similar fate. Her organization grew large in stature. Unfortunately, this week, Mam was forced to resign after an auditor presented a report that refuted Mam's story. Mam's case resembles a number of other recent cases, most notably Lance Armstrong and Greg Mortensen. While there are a number of reasons why Mam and Armstrong would have told these stories, one of the larger ones has to be the currency it gave to themselves and the organizations.

In addition, the reasons that these three and others got into trouble is that their incredible stories were not enough. Armstrong surviving cancer and just entering the Tour de France is amazing but he felt like he needed more and engaged in a number of bad behaviors that ruined the whole tale. As I look at these three and the others, the farther the currency propelled them the more that the currency needed more. Enough was never enough.

The second danger is that this currency becomes the only currency that matters, which relates to the issues of the individual who had challenges with my story. While the Lance Armstrong Foundation is working to pivot from its challenging place and we have yet to see if the Somaly Mam Foundation can make similar strides but if the organization was built on this currency it also falls when that currency is destroyed. Organizations should be built on the foundations of vision, impact and effectiveness but in a world where story and message trumps all, the currency of overcoming is often too easy to use.

I suspect in looking at my own story, I have found that over the years that the currency that matters more and more is the work I am doing in alleviating the issues I care about and if i am making a difference. I also believe that the currency of "Overcoming Great Odds" still exists but rather than it being the big bills, maybe it should just be the pocket change.